Directed By: Isao Takahata
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen
Tag line: "A Princess' Crime and Punishment"
Trivia: This movie was selected to be screened as part of the Directors' Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a Japanese folk story dating back to the 10th century, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the latest offerings of Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli, which alone is reason enough to celebrate.
While out working one day, a bamboo cutter discovers a tiny princess, so small she can fit in the palm of his hand, nestled inside a luminous stalk of bamboo. Considering her a gift from heaven, the cutter returns home to his wife, who agrees that they should raise the girl as if she were their own daughter. Growing faster than a normal child, the princess befriends some of the local kids, including handsome teenager Sutemaru, and spends her days frolicking with them in the fields of the nearby mountain. After also finding a bamboo stalk filled with gold, the cutter moves his wife and the princess to the city, where he builds a beautiful palace for them all to reside in. Believing the princess was destined to live a life of royalty, the cutter hires the Lady Sagami to teach her how to behave like a refined young woman. Given the name “Kaguya” by royal priest Inbe no Akita, the princess is soon approached by 5 prestigious suitors, all of whom seek her hand in marriage; as well as the Emperor himself, who wishes to make Princess Kaguya one of his many wives. It’s at this point the princess, who longs for the freedom she experienced on the mountain, remembers her true origins, and realizes that the people of her world are coming to bring her home.
For The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, director Takahata and his animators returned to the basics, relying on charcoal drawings and watercolors to bring this ancient folktale to life. Yet despite its simplistic nature, many of the images on display in this movie are among the most elegant Studio Ghibli ever produced (the scene where the cutter searches for the princess in the bamboo forest as the sun goes down is particularly striking). This natural approach proves the perfect match for the story at hand, in which the princess is forcibly removed from a world she loves (the mountain and its nearby forest), only to find herself in one that’s completely foreign to her. Though his intentions were good, we realize early on that the cutter should never have moved his family to the city, where deception is commonplace (some of the suitors stoop to treachery and lies in order to win the princess’s affections). It’s a different life than what they experienced in the wilderness, where people were honest and things were much simpler. While its visual style may be unique, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya fits right in with other Studio Ghibli offerings like Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, putting the focus squarely on the magical qualities of the natural world.
Co-founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke); producer Toshio Suzuki; and Isao Takahata (who, along with this film, also directed 1988’s haunting Grave of the Fireflies), Studio Ghibli has turned out some of the finest animated features of the last 30 years, and while it may be a bit premature to hail it as a classic, I’m betting The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will eventually rank as one of the renowned studio’s all-time best films.